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Impressions From Nicaragua

Silke Reichrath, RFPI Intern May≠August 1998

As one of the highlights of my stay in Costa Rica, I had the opportunity to spend a week in July travelling through southern Nicaragua.

My first impression upon entering the country on the Panamerican Highway was the contrast in living conditions between Costa Rica and Nicaragua: kids in rags without shoes, dilapidated wooden or mud houses, dirt roads, no electricity, large tracts of wasteland. In June, several communities in this south-western tip of Nicaragua had threatened to annex themselves to Costa Rica, and for good reason—they receive little attention from the central government, but they see the lights of Costa Rica beckoning on the horizon every night.

My first stop was Granada, an old and once wealthy colonial city on the western shore of Lake Nicaragua. The calm here is refreshing in contrast to busy, congested Costa Rican cities. Transportation is largely facilitated by horse and buggy, by bicycle, or on foot. The large colonial mansions on the plaza and the main calzada from the plaza to the lake are impressive and offer comfortable accommodation, shops, and restaurants. Most of these small businesses have opened up in the last four years--first signs of an economic revitalization after a decade of civil war and embargoes in the 1980s. Yet venturing into one of the neighboring streets shows a different picture: large families crowded around the black-and-white TV screen in tiny wooden shacks, playing, visiting, and bathing on the street, blanketing the intruder with curious eyes.

Many Nicaraguans feel the only positive development since the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas in 1990 is the end of the war. Other than that, the successive governments have done nothing for the country. The only new health care or educational facilities people know of were constructed by international aid agencies, while governmental institutions are left to fall apart. With an estimated unemployment rate between 40-60%, there simply are no jobs. People have the choice between migrating abroad for employment or resigning themselves to a life in poverty.

A day trip to the town of Masaya produced a mixture of bewilderment and admiration. Bewilderment, because the bus depot and central market are one huge patch of dust with a confusion (at least to the outsider) of buses and vendors. Admiration at the variety and quality of crafts offered at the crafts market: pottery, carvings, leather and other skin products from caimans to frogs, clothing, jewelery, paintings, clay and marble figures--a lively display of the creativity and potential of Nicaraguan artisans from around the country.

From Granada, I took the ferry to the island of Ometepe, which consists of two volcanoes. It is known for its peaceful atmosphere and the petroglyphs, ancient pictures of unknown origin with people and animals, carved into the rocks along the shore. I spent a fun couple of days swimming, playing games, and enjoying excellent food with a group of backpackers and 'Barba Roja,' a Swiss expatriate famous for his flaming red beard, his claim to be the last revolutionary, and his beer-drinking records.

I continued the ride on the Granada-San Carlos ferry to the eastern lake shore. All in all, it takes 16 hours to cross the lake. Residents of the area east of the lake have a choice between the ferry or a 24-hour bus-ride through isolated territory when they need to go to the capital for post-secondary education, work, or documents.

I made friends with a 13-year-old girl I had met on Ometepe, whose mother is working in Managua. She lives with her father in Bluefields on the Mosquito coast and had a 3-day-journey by boat ahead of her. About a third of Nicaragua is covered by this system of swamps and rivers, only accessible by boat or plane. Cocaine is regularly washed ashore, dumped by traders along the coast and, combined with unemployment, creating a net of drugs and crime that large numbers of youths along the Carribean coast are caught up in.

The ferry also carries migrant workers on their way to Costa Rica, who cross the river San Juan at San Carlos. About 800 are reported to cross each week to look for work and a better life. I talked to an 11-year-old boy travelling with his grandmother. He had lived with her since his mother abandoned him to marry a Costa Rican. Now the grandmother was seeking to get away from her abusive husband, so the boy sold some of their clothes and left school to find employment on Costa Rica's plantations. Laws against child labor, for minimum wages, and humane working conditions obviously do not apply to illegal migrants, who sometimes are cheated out of their meager wages altogether. Yet for many, migrating, no matter what the circumstances are, is the best option for survival.

On that all-night ferry ride, I also heard stories from the war. How some of the young men were dragged from their homes when they were 12 years old and forced to join the Contras. With beatings and kicks they were taught to fight and kill, and later they taught the new 'recruits' likewise. They were not allowed to talk to anybody outside their unit--that would have been treason. Without contact with their families for years, they lived with the fear that their relatives would be killed because of their involvement with the Contras. Yet they still do not know what the war was all about.

From San Carlos, I took the boat to the Solentiname islands, a haven for artists and artisans established by the local farmers with the inspiration and logistical support of Catholic priest Ernesto Cardenal. I had the privilege to stay as a boarder with the boatman's brother and his family. They gave me the grand tour of the islands, visiting caves, farms, a family of very gifted painters, and an artisan's village. Solentiname is an oasis of peace and harmony where everybody knows everybody, each family has enough land to grow what they need for a living, and the crafts bring in some extra cash. Electricity is provided by generators and solar panels, drinking water by wells (the lake is very contaminated), and transportation by boats. Visitors are welcome and quickly adopted into the community. The major challenge to long-term sustainability is that young people have to leave the islands to get secondary education or beyond. The nearest high school is in San Carlos. Since there is no employment on the islands other than subsistence agriculture and crafts, young people who do continue their education past grade six often move to Managua to find a job.

After a couple of days on Solentiname, I returned to Costa Rica at the San Carlos/ Los Chiles river crossing. Nicaragua has left a strong impact on me because of the openness, honesty, and hospitality of its people as well as the scenic beauty of the lake.

© 2001
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